“Okay, try now?” Lin Jing says, his voice betraying sharp anxiety where he sits hunched over the purloined laptop he has plugged into the wall.
As with each time Lin Jing has asked, Shen Wei focuses a tendril of dark energy at the shield inside the physical door between them and the lab. So far it hasn’t shown any signs of wavering, not from careful probing, and not from more force. This time, however—it’s not much, but it is the difference between a wholly dark night sky, and one where the distant horizon is beginning to acquire a first hint of color. “More of that, Lin Jing,” Shen Wei says. Then he glances at the small screen next to the door, and adds, “Hurry.” As if Lin Jing doesn’t know.
Lin Jing, too, used to respect Professor Ouyang—was mentored by him in ways Shen Wei never could be, being neither truly young nor truly human. But seeing the man now, twisted into a parody of everything a good scholar should be—it has been agonizing, watching without being able to interfere. Without being able to do anything for his own young student, in there because of her connection to Shen Wei. He feels a keen sense of responsibility, and guilt, and fear that he will stand here like this and watch ineffectually while Li Qian is hurt—or worse. The small screen isn’t giving the full story of what has transpired in the lab, but Shen Wei doesn’t need technology to tell him there has been at least one death already.
“How’s the chief?” Lin Jing asks, a tremor in his voice as his fingers fly over the keys.
“Getting worse,” Shen Wei says tersely. He knows, because he can feel it.
Lin Jing gulps, and hunches a little closer to his screen.
Shen Wei frowns as he stares at the corner of the screen showing a glowing bed with Zhao Yunlan’s form curled up in pain. At first he thought the SID chief knew something—had made the excursion up as an excuse to get to Professor Ouyang in private, maybe. They can’t hear what is happening inside, and that let Shen Wei believe he was right for a moment. Zhao Yunlan immediately attached himself to the professor, and seemed to be wheedling him for something.
But not even Zhao Yunlan would be stupid enough to think there was anything to gain by accepting that dangerous and irresponsible concoction into his own body. It drove Lin Jing into a proper fit, watching his chief stand there and let Professor Ouyang inject him. Shen Wei obligingly tried the blade against the door again, but to no avail.
What could possibly have motivated Zhao Yunlan to put himself in this situation? Maybe if they had been able to hear—but they can’t. The video screen has remained mute no matter which buttons Lin Jing pressed. Shen Wei will have to get Zhao Yunlan out. Ask the man himself. Because it seems like maybe he did it because Professor Ouyang had his unethical sights set on another target, and Zhao Yunlan chose to interfere.
But why? It is infuriating, this sudden uncertainty—none of Zhao Yunlan’s actions add up. Not even the ones Shen Wei’s witnessed since returning to Haixing. Maybe there is another Zhao Yunlan—a twin?
“Hey—what? Oh—now!” Lin Jing shouts, snapping Shen Wei out of his increasingly absurd contemplations.
Shen Wei doesn’t bother with a probing tendril, not with Lin Jing’s voice raised like that. Not with the sudden absence of any impressions, no matter how vague, from Zhao Yunlan.
The door doesn’t give at once, but Shen Wei channels power he doesn’t yet have to spare into the force of his second blow, and it shatters into smoking debris. Shen Wei strides through first, with Lin Jing—unarmed but too worried to hang back—on his heels.
Professor Ouyang looks up, his startlement transforming into a smile when he sees Shen Wei. So he really has gone all the way over the edge, because Shen Wei is not wearing an expression that should invite smiling. He is also holding a sword. “Professor Shen!”
Shen Wei scans the room. “Get out,” he tells the white-coated assistants.
Three of them need no other encouragement to bolt. Li Qian doesn’t follow. “Professor Shen?” Her eyes are wide, but not afraid. Not anymore.
Shen Wei gives her a nod. “Well done, Li Qian,” he says. “You can go with the others.” She doesn’t, and Shen Wei feels a rush of protective affection her for it.
“My experiments,” Professor Ouyang is saying. “Please come, I will show you—”
“How could you?” Shen Wei demands. “Everything you know, everything you’ve taught, and you turn it into this?” He gestures to Lin Jing bent over Zhao Yunlan, calling for his chief, lightly tapping the slack face.
“I turned it into this!” Professor Ouyang roars, provoked into a smashing rage. It is no threat to Shen Wei, but he has yet to decide how he should best contain the furious man.
“Professor Shen?” Lin Jing calls, his voice high. “Please, I think—I can’t see him breathing anymore!”
Or Shen Wei could just knock him out. There’s nothing left in that brain worth protecting anyway.
A moment later, Professor Ouyang is out cold on the floor, and Shen Wei is standing over Zhao Yunlan’s body. Obviously, Zhao Yunlan can’t die now. He still hasn’t left this time, he still hasn’t done what Shen Wei hates him for. But maybe—just maybe—if he does die now, that means the past will fix itself, and Shen Wei won’t have to bear the grief of Kunlun’s loss anymore.
“Professor Shen!” Lin Jing is staring up at him. “Can’t you do something? Don’t just leave him like this!”
Li Qian crouches beside Lin Jing, and grabs Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, resting her fingers against it to feel for a pulse.
Shen Wei doesn’t really see either of them, only looks at Zhao Yunlan’s pale face, wiped blank. How strange. Even sleep doesn’t extinguish his expressions like this, only softens his energy. It makes Shen Wei’s heart ache, because he wants Kunlun to live, but he doesn’t want Zhao Yunlan to die—not like this. And that feels like some kind of betrayal.
It doesn’t take much. Shen Wei doesn’t even get Lin Jing and Li Qian to move out of the way. He simply reaches out a hand and pours enough energy into the oxygen-starved lungs to remind them of their function. That should get the heart what it needs, too. And then—he snaps his hand back as if burned, though he has yet to touch Zhao Yunlan’s skin. Is that what Professor Ouyang did?
“You fool,” he snarls—at the professor, for forcing this on other people, and at Zhao Yunlan for making terrible choices. (Uninformed choices, a small part of Shen Wei opinies. If the chief had known, maybe he would have thought twice before getting himself in this situation.) Then Shen Wei reaches in, feels for where the change in Zhao Yunlan is happening, and makes it stop.
“Oh!” Li Qian exclaims. “His pulse—it’s getting stronger.”
Lin Jing pretty much flings himself across Zhao Yunlan to check on his breathing, and smiles at Li Qian before shooting Shen Wei a look that’s half gratitude, half suspicion. “Is that it, or…?”
Shen Wei shakes his head. “Only for right now—and it won’t be enough to wake him,” he says, and Lin Jing’s face falls. “I can explain later,” Shen Wei says. “We should report to the Ministry—let them know to take Professor Ouyang into custody. Let them know that he…” Shen Wei trails off, looking at Li Qian.
Li Qian swallows, her eyes shining with unshed tears, as she points to a corner of the lab. “Zhang Yuhua,” she says.
Shen Wei remembers Zhang Yuhua—a young woman the year or so above Li Qian. She was energetic and outgoing, and organized study circles and mentoring programs. Something of a big sister for her entire class, and certainly for the younger girls. Smart enough for Li Qian to idolize her—and for Professor Ouyang to recruit her for his project. Shen Wei takes two strides across the room. Sees what has become of her, and wishes that maybe he hadn’t been quite so gentle with Professor Ouyang.
Lin Jing comes more hesitantly, clearly afraid—Shen Wei doesn’t blame him. Not even when he rushes to the side, narrowly making it to one of the lab’s sinks before being violently ill.
Li Qian exhales a shivering sigh, and then looks up from her hand wrapped around Zhao Yunlan’s wrist to Shen Wei’s face. “Sorry,” she says, and wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. “I forgot—I shouldn’t keep you.”
“From what?” Shen Wei asks, and Li Qian gives him a tremulous smile.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Please—I understand. You don’t have to pretend around me, especially not now.”
Is she—is she talking about the relationship Shen Wei had with Zhao Yunlan? But why would she—how would she—?
“Come on,” she says, moving out of the way. “Chief Zhao will be glad you’re here. He was calling for you.”
“Calling?” Shen Wei repeats dumbly, without moving closer. He doesn’t want to move closer. Li Qian’s brow is starting to furrow.
“When—when he was hurting.” Li Qian shudders at the memory, then exhales again, centering herself. She has gotten much more adept at controlling her emotions, Shen Wei notices distractedly. “I’m sorry. I don’t think he wanted us to hear it, but… He kept saying your name.”
Shen Wei stares at Zhao Yunlan. Why would he do that? Especially after what Shen Wei saw on the rooftop—surely it should have been another name on his lips. So which was it? Zhao Yunlan, very much unconscious, doesn’t answer the unspoken question. It is unexpectedly frustrating, not having Zhao Yunlan’s instant attention when he wants it.
“I’ll go get word to the Ministry,” Lin Jing comes up behind them, a damp paper towel crumpled in his hand. Shen Wei wants to reach out and stop him, but it makes sense—of the two of them, Lin Jing’s status is the more official. Both as part of the SID, and Professor Ouyang’s lab.
“We need to get Chief Zhao back inside the SID’s shield,” Shen Wei warns. It won’t do anything directly, but with all the threats out here it will be a far better place to give Shen Wei time to do more.
Lin Jing nods. “I’ll explain—Li Qian, can you come with me? You might have to stay and brief them. I’m sorry, that’s probably—”
“No,” Li Qian says. “I will do it.”
“Meet us at the car,” Lin Jing says. “Bring the chief.” It sounds almost like an order, despite his usual nervous manner around Shen Wei.
They leave together, and Shen Wei is alone with two unconscious men.
He only cares about one of them.
Gingerly, Shen Wei crouches so he can look at Zhao Yunlan. The lack of expression hasn’t changed. There are no answers there, so Shen Wei delves deeper. Closes his eyes and reaches out a hand—he remembers how frustrating it was to get used to Zhao Yunlan being hurt and needing his help. How terrifying. It is—less, now. Zhao Yunlan who is not Kunlun; Zhao Yunlan who killed Kunlun (but why?).
But there is nothing to read of Zhao Yunlan’s motivations in his energies. No imprint of any orders, any tampering outside of the terrible wrong Professor Ouyang just did to him. Which is most of what Shen Wei can feel. He opens his eyes and nothing has changed. If he lowered his outreached hand a fraction, Shen Wei could stroke Zhao Yunlan’s hair.
He doesn’t. But maybe some part of him wants to, because it takes him two tries to move his hand back to his side. Shen Wei scowls. If it isn’t some kind of compulsion, something left by Ye Zun to trick him, draw him in—what is it?
A few guards are trickling through the shattered doors—sent by Lin Jing, since they don’t immediately threaten Shen Wei, only nod respectfully. Shen Wei doesn’t know how much time has passed, but Professor Ouyang is still unconscious. Shen Wei helpfully points the guards to the unconscious murderer, and makes sure that they tie him up carefully enough to hold his bloated strength. Then he goes to Zhao Yunlan, who needs to be moved to the car.
The choice is between carrying him, and taking guards away from the vital task of watching Professor Ouyang. Shen Wei knows he shouldn’t hesitate. He approaches Zhao Yunlan warily, but there is no flicker of consciousness in the SID chief. Carefully, Shen Wei gathers the limp body in his arms. There is no reaction, no greedy hands sliding under fabric or warm face pressed into his neck.
Shen Wei carries Zhao Yunlan carefully, and folds him into the recovery position in the back seat of the car. Then he goes and stands outside the passenger door until Lin Jing arrives with the chief's gun and phone and carefully drives them back.
Yunlan doesn’t know when the darkness gave way to this strange, flickering scenery, but he can’t stop to think about it. Not when Shen Wei is ahead of him—sometimes just barely ahead, sometimes a small figure in the distance. Yunlan has called out for him, but Shen Wei doesn’t hear—he knows Shen Wei doesn’t hear him, because otherwise Shen Wei would turn around. Would come back to Yunlan, where he should be. Would let Yunlan be with Shen Wei, where he should be.
So Yunlan—runs? He’s chasing, at least. Chasing after Shen Wei, through a landscape that changes form and size: horizon expanding over mountain ranges and broad valleys, then shrinking into the confines of a Dixing palace hall and something smaller yet. There is a windowless room hewn out of rough stone kept warm by a fireplace which expands into the Dragon City University campus, and turns into a desolate wasteland Yunlan doesn’t recognize at all.
There is darkness, but different than the one Yunlan drifted out of to find himself here. There is light, and it is moonlight and starlight and all hues of sunlight. Sunlight filtered through trees, sunlight struggling through a dull and hazy sky, the first blush of sunlight on a winter’s morning. Sometimes there’s a streetlight, or a neon sign, or—Yunlan almost stops to stare at it—the motorcycle light from his own flat. None of it is steady. It’s like an old channel with bad reception, or a picture on a spinning top wobbling about. There then gone, there then gone.
Other than Yunlan, there seems to be only two other constants in this world. One is Shen Wei. As long as Yunlan doesn’t lose him—but he hasn’t, so far. Has managed to follow behind Shen Wei’s solid back, always clad in the black of his Envoy cloak. Always marching on towards something Yunlan can’t see.
The other constant is the bone-deep, soul-wearying pain. At first Yunlan thought it was him—something to do with why he’s here instead of properly asleep or awake, with the gnawing suspicion that there is something very wrong with him. But it’s not. This pain is everywhere. It doesn’t come and go, doesn’t sit in any particular part of his body. It’s just there, through the light and dark, through the open plains and dappled forests and ornate halls. Everywhere Shen Wei has stepped, this pain drifts in his wake.
If it were an odor, it would become so easy to ignore Yunlan might forget it was there. But it’s pain, and the thing with pain is that unless there is relief, it gets worse the longer you bear it. It’s also becoming sharper, clearer—resolving into harsh grief and wrenching loss and cold fury. And something else. A bitter undercurrent that saturates everything, that makes everything hurt more. It makes Yunlan think of poisons, of things that should give sustenance but have been altered to do terrible harm.
Yunlan doesn’t understand any of it. Emotions don’t usually have flavors; pain doesn’t usually flow in from outside. But he doesn’t have to understand to know: Shen Wei is hurting. And that means Yunlan needs to to stop it. Slowing down because of the toll that same pain is taking on him is no option. He must follow, and then he must catch up, and then he must make it better. Because he won’t allow this world or any other to hurt the man he loves.
If only Shen Wei weren’t moving so fast, toward—what’s this? Something new. Another—not constant, because it wasn’t there before, but it’s there now. And it’s not changing.
It’s a light, Yunlan thinks. A beacon; a lighthouse. Rising up and flooding outwards, it’s brighter than any of the noonday suns he’s seen here, and with more heat than any summer afternoons. The light is mellow gold, soft and warm, and washes everything around them in those same shades.
No. No, wait. Yunlan hurries, somehow forces more of the distance closed because he must see, must make sure—and there it is. Shen Wei is still walking towards it, and Yunlan is still bathing in its glow, but the light doesn’t touch Shen Wei.
It can’t. Not through the long shadow cast from something between Shen Wei and this light he is so desperately seeking. Wherever Shen Wei steps, there is only darkness. A sundial’s narrow shadow; a sliver of night made just for him.
Yunlan looks up, and sees the pillar. He’s not even particularly surprised at how familiar it is. Angry, because Shen Wei is hurting so bad, and it’s so clear that the one thing he needs, his brother’s looming presence is keeping from him. Even here, even—wherever they are.
But Shen Wei is getting closer and closer, and the light is getting brighter and brighter, and surely that will soon be enough to eliminate that narrow band of darkness and show Shen Wei what lies beyond? Yunlan wants to rush up to Shen Wei, to take his hand and tug him to the side and show him that whatever he needs, it’s right there. But even without Yunlan, Shen Wei is so close, so close—
And then the world shifts and folds.
It’s not a world of solid things, so it doesn’t move or crumble the way anything real would. It hinges itself around the pillar, and just as Shen Wei has one step left to go, the hem of his dark robes bathed in a golden glow, everything twists. The light becomes a negative of itself, an inkblot on a white page, spreading its impenetrable darkness over both light and shadow in the flickering world. And there’s the pain—everything Yunlan felt before a mere echo of this one moment, this shockwave of grief and rage that tears through every part of the strange scenery. It’s too much for him. He tries to reach for Shen Wei but he can’t; he’s not close enough. And the moment he loses sight of Shen Wei, that same darkness from before closes in over his head and pulls him under.
It’s the second time in less than twenty-four hours that Shen Wei returns from the Haixing Ministry with Zhao Yunlan injured. It’s beginning to feel less like random chance and more like some kind of carelessness from his side—certainly, Wang Zheng and Zhu Hong both give him particularly considering looks as everyone crowds together around the chief’s limp form in the office sofa.
Or maybe those are because Shen Wei had Lin Jing lift Zhao Yunlan inside, and is now choosing to sit in a nearby chair rather than on the sofa itself. But he can’t afford the distraction of Zhao Yunlan’s physical presence right now—and even if he could ignore it, he doesn’t currently have enough strength left to waste any more on carrying people around. Too much has been happening in too little time since Ye Zun had him captive, and Shen Wei has not had time to replenish any of the power his brother stole. What he has is barely enough to keep a trickle running into Zhao Yunlan now, encouraging his human body to ignore the foreign intrusion of Professor Ouyang’s serum rather than spend all its energies repulsing it.
Da Qing has brought the first aid kit, with a put-upon expression that doesn’t hide any of his concern for his master—his chief. “How often do we have to do this now, hm?” he asks, sitting down by Zhao Yunlan’s side. “You should have told us you were going, not left us all asleep.”
Lin Jing flinches guiltily. “Sorry,” he says. “We shouldn’t have let the chief go in alone, but he told us…”
Da Qing makes a frustrated grimace. “We all know how stupid Lao Zhao gets, Lin Jing.”
Zhu Hong nods. “It’s not your fault.” But she looks at Shen Wei again, and it makes him feel uncomfortable.
“You are sure an ambulance won’t be necessary?” Wang Zheng was originally hesitant to accept Shen Wei’s insistence that the best place for Zhao Yunlan right now is in Bright Street #4, and can’t help asking again. She who has never set foot in a hospital has an almost fanatical belief in the ability of the modern healers and their machines to cure anything.
“There is nothing physically wrong with Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei explains again. “But he needs rest.” And more, but not until Shen Wei has had some rest himself.
“I smell blood,” Zhu Hong disagrees.
Da Qing nods, and then glares at Lin Jing. “Don’t look like that! It’s from before, with the Crows.” He starts unwrapping the gauze around Zhao Yunlan’s neck, as he adds, “I hope…” Then he hisses, and those around him gasp.
“I thought you said that bastard didn’t touch him?” Da Qing snaps at Lin Jing, effectively undoing all of his earlier reassurances.
“I thought he didn’t! But I was busy with the door...” Lin Jing clearly doesn’t want to, but he turns the statement into a question with a look at Shen Wei.
“What?” Shen Wei asks. “Professor Ouyang had no reason to do Chief Zhao any harm—he didn’t struggle at all.” Inexplicably didn’t. Only stood there, watching the door with Shen Wei on the other side.
“Then how do you explain this?” Da Qing snarls, and leans aside so that Shen Wei can see.
The bruises stand out even more than they usually would against the current pallor of Zhao Yunlan’s skin. There is a darker impression of a thumb on one side of his throat, and swollen finger smudges on the other. A constellation of angry red dots is strung out between them, and the cut on his neck below his ear has been torn open again, and is ringed with layers of dry blood that have peeled off with the bandages.
Shen Wei immediately knows who has marked Zhao Yunlan thus—and also understands what kind of force it would take to leave those imprints behind. “Ye Zun.” The name spills from him in a rush of fury, which is quickly followed by new uncertainty and a confused jealousy.
In Shen Wei’s sudden state of heightened emotions, the trickle of energy he’s been feeding Zhao Yunlan spikes into a flood before he can stop it. He struggles against an overwhelming wave of weakness, mostly oblivious to the clamor rising around him. Trying to keep from sagging in his chair he uses his physical form and energies both to grasp for support, knowing he is well beyond his limits.
It comes to Shen Wei in a warm rush. Unthinking, he grasps at it, like he would an outstretched hand or strong shoulder—support freely given, catching Shen Wei before he can fall. It is life, and it is strength, and for a moment he feels such a boundless tenderness that Kunlun’s name comes unbidden to his lips.
But that is impossible. Shen Wei drops the connection to whatever source of power he’s been offered with a guilty start. Raising his head, he finally notices what everyone else already has: Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are open, and he’s staring right at Shen Wei.